Lawmakers' Dueling Debt Plans

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner started the weekend with a pair of dueling news conferences, followed by back-room conversations, conference calls and news releases — but no deal was reached in the debt talks. Now leaders of each party are drafting their own plans for avoiding a crisis.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're beginning the last full week before the United States defaults on its debts.

LOUISE KELLY: On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner walked away from talks to raise the debt ceiling.

INSKEEP: Boehner complained the president was too hard to pin down, while President Obama complained that Republicans couldn't say yes to anything.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, after a variety of talks over the weekend, Republicans and Democrats are each developing their own, separate plans to restrain spending and avoid default.

INSKEEP: So let's begin our coverage with NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. She's on the line.

Andrea, good morning.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to get the basics of these plans, these proposals, as best as they're understood. What are the Republicans aiming for, in general terms?

SEABROOK: The Republicans are attempting to pull together a two-step plan. That means there would be two votes: one vote in the next, you know, few days about raising the debt ceiling and cutting spending - at least the same amount. There would be another vote later on, possibly at the end of this year or early next, that would include more spending cuts and a higher raise in the debt ceiling.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about a second vote before the election, which is something that President Obama has said he doesn't want, actually. He says he wants the vote to be long enough - the term to be long enough - that they wouldn't vote to raise the debt ceiling again before next year's election. What is the Democratic alternative here?

SEABROOK: Well, the Democratic alternative is being spearheaded by Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate. And what he is drafting is something that would cut about two and a half trillion dollars in spending, give or take, and raise the debt limit by the same amount - therefore getting through 2012, which President Obama wants.

And President Obama's reasoning here, is that he doesn't want to have another debt-limit fight that is so contentious and so terrible, even in a more contentious political year when the markets could, again, have big problems with that.

INSKEEP: And of course, this reminds us that 2012 is hanging over all of this. You've just laid out the president's reasoning for wanting a longer-term plan. Republicans have essentially said the president is doing this for personal, political reasons; that it would harm his re-election, and so he wants a longer- term plan to get it past the election. So that's the argument there. But on the flipside of that, the question has to be raised: Why is it that Republicans would be focusing on a shorter-term plan that would include a vote in an election year on raising the debt ceiling yet again?

SEABROOK: Well, I think a lot of the Republicans think they have the American people on their side, that there is never a bad time to fight for keeping taxes low. That always looks good for them, besides the fact that many of them believe it's always the right thing. And so they could see another debt-ceiling fight next year as being not necessarily politically bad for them.

INSKEEP: Although I'm thinking of something that Nate Silver wrote over the weekend. He follows polling for the New York Times, and he said, quote, not clear why GOP want another debt-limit fight in winter. Obama's polling isn't good on this, but theirs - the Republicans, he means - is terrible.

SEABROOK: Yeah, it's clear that the American public - at least, according to polling - really supports Obama's position right now, that there should be some amount of revenue raisers - that equals tax increases, to many Republicans - and spending cuts in order to get - move forward and take control of our long-term fiscal atmosphere here.

INSKEEP: And let's emphasize, Democrats are not polling great, either, on this. Disapproval of both parties is soaring.

LOUISE KELLY: The president has the power to keep the country from going to hell. In this case, if nobody can agree by early next week, does the president have that power?

SEABROOK: It's unclear, but there is an idea that came out from two law professors - one at the University of Chicago, and one at Harvard. They say the president should go ahead and suspend the debt-ceiling law itself, that when you have a situation that is so terrible as this, they should follow the example of President Abraham Lincoln, who suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War in order to hold the country together. And they say that President Obama should follow Lincoln's example.

INSKEEP: OK. Andrea, thanks very much.

SEABROOK: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

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